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Vedika Bihani

IWB Intern

Noel Benno Of Storytime Builds Stories, Libraries And Lives For Underprivileged

  • IWB Post
  •  November 14, 2017


“Once upon a time there was an elephant and a rat. The Elephant planned to buy an ice cream for the rat; he was so confused about the flavor that he couldn’t make up his mind. By now, his thinking furnace was about to blast, and before he realized, all the ice cream melted, and the rat had to sleep on an empty stomach.”

I am totally sane! The story was told to Noel Benno by one of the children from his storytelling gang.

Three college friends (Noel Benno, Cyndy Mathew, and Arundhati Menon) came together to create Storytime in 2013.

Storytime is a project that aims to provide underprivileged kids with reading material and space. After collecting books from various private and public schools, the team stacks them up for the children who cannot access them. They also build customized libraries for the children to especially suit their requirements in the most economic manner. The project is ongoing and is still an all-volunteer initiative with an international presence in 4 countries, and a national presence in 4 Indian states.

As obsessed as we are with reading, we had to find out how the library functions. Noel Benno told us how the network of three friends keeps expanding through word of mouth and has turned into a movement to spread happiness and knowledge.

What urged you to set up this organization?

It was during my college days when the idea popped into my head. I randomly visited a shelter home and asked if I could help them in some way. A girl requested me if I could give her some used books. I didn’t have any books at my hostel, so I asked my friends for help. This random act of kindness filled my heart with a feeling of pure joy. It was an addictive emotion, and I didn’t want to let go of it. That’s how the decision to bring Storytime into existence started shaping up. Noel Benno 1

How was your first experience of narrating stories to children?

I terribly failed! Can you imagine my story finished in three minutes? I could sense confusion and chaos in the air. I could not engage the children, and everything was going haywire. After that session, I learned a lot about storytelling.

And, they say we learn from our mistakes. Share five storytelling secrets that make you a pro?

I am not sure if I am a pro or an expert, yet. While storytelling, the narrator must be very conscious about the reaction of the children. There is this misconception that narration is all about voice modulations rather than interaction. Body language is the most important among all. The words you speak must weave images in a child’s mind and run as moving pictures. One must live the story. The more you connect with your listeners, the better it is.

Coming back to your first experience, do you remember books from your first collection?

Our first collection was from a private school in Kochi. The pile had all sorts of books, but most of them were in English. Kids who required the books were familiar only with their mother tongue. That was a huge challenge we faced. Learning from this incident, we started collecting books in Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam.

Any help required?

Apart from the language barrier, finding volunteers still remains a huge challenge. We majorly look for skilled young people who can help us build libraries and read stories to children. Are you the one?

The culture of using paperbacks is also reducing, people are switching to e-books. What do you prefer?

I believe that e-books are a great alternative to traditional books. They are handier and environment-friendly. I personally prefer paperbacks. They give me a warm feeling of touch. The smell of books fills me with nostalgia. To me, books are a bundle of emotions. Do I sound insane?Noel Benno 2

Most of the readers share this feeling. Coming back to Storytime, through a social effort, how can we make education accessible to underprivileged children?

This is a very complex question. Our education system is primitive; it restricts the scope for growth. Education should be a gateway to expression and freedom to the kids. It should open more avenues and opportunities. What we learn outside the classroom is more important than routine classes.

A typical childhood story has a prince who rescues a princess in despair. How do you bring gender equality through your stories?

I avoid such clichéd stories. I correlate fiction with reality. Magic happens, when fantasy meets the reality.  My favorite stories are about real-life superheroes and people who have inspired me, like John Wood.

(John J. Wood  is the Founder of Room to Read, a global non-profit organization that focuses on literacy and gender equality in education).noel benno 3

What are the components of a good library?

First and foremost, remove the ‘silence’ board. A library must be a key to freedom. A child should feel free to express and talk about the books they read. A reading space must have a flexible seating arrangement. The environment should inspire children to enter the world of fantasy through books.

I have found a new destination for my old books. Have you?

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